KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

If I told you a story, would you believe me?

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dilbert-stories

There has been lots of discussion lately about both the potential and danger of “stories”. There are those who believe that stories are a major way to foster greater support for international development, drive organizational change, or share knowledge.

There have also been a number of academic bloggers warning about the danger of stories, about their lack of scientific rigor and their dangers of being influenced by them.

Maybe, just maybe, both the detractors and promoters are overstating their case (another example of black and white thinking?).

Humans are hard-wired to tell and respond to stories and have been a major way of sharing knowledge and ideas throughout human history. Before writing and the scientific method this was possibly the only way to do this. But the way that stories work is both an opportunity and a potential problem.

Reality is complex, messy and full of uncertainties – even in your own areas of expertise and experience. Explaining this to someone else who doesn’t share your technical background or frame of reference is extremely hard. Stories can serve as a powerful way to bridge these gaps to make it easier to convey an idea from one person to another. One of the reasons they work so well is that they distil messy reality into a few individual concepts or ideas stripping out detail and nuance, and they use a familiar narrative form to explain these in a way in which the listener can easily understand, relate to their own experience and emotionally engage with.

When I learn about something I’m unfamiliar with it’s much easier if the first time I hear it, it is (over)simplified so I can grasp the main elements, and that it is explained in a way which I can relate to my own experience, or I can imagine it in terms of how it affects people (even hypothetical ones) in the real world, rather than in terms of abstract concepts. Once I’ve understood the basics, I might then be able to flesh out this basic knowledge with additional experiences or stories, through my own experimentation and experience, or through reading the literature, or through my own research. But if the door to the topic is not opened in a way which I can easily grasp, relate to and care about –then I might never get to the part where I check my sources, test my assumptions and take the issue on for myself.

Another important factor in accepting knowledge or an idea from someone is trust. How do I judge the value of information shared about an unfamiliar topic? If I’m short on time I’m likely to judge it on its plausibility and its provenance. Storytelling helps build a relationship between storyteller and listener in a way that for most people data doesn’t in that it makes a story human and it also creates a relationship between the storyteller, the listener and the idea itself in a way which is much stronger (and which requires much less learned skills) than looking at a shared data set. And the building of relationships, and of shared frames of reference are critical to maintain an ongoing and mutually supportive flow of knowledge within communities of practitioners (including for researchers!).

However it’s important for both the teller and the listener to recognize that a story is not objective reality, it’s  a subjective personal interpretation. It is necessarily oversimplified, and might not even be “true”, even though it’s a good way to open a conversation and spark a potential interest in a new issue or to help explain a complex issue to a lay audience. Stories can be subject to bias both in the telling and the listening – although we are much more aware of this than of the smaller but still real biases that occur in the formulation and presentation of “objective, scientific data”. Like the use of metaphor, stories are a device to aid transfer of ideas – but are not the ideas or facts themselves.

On the one hand we don’t use stories enough to help introduce people to new ideas and to spark interest and engagement. They could be used more as a tool for experts and researchers to start a dialogue about the applications of their expertise in policy and in politics, and for politicians or advocates to engage an uninformed or weary public on public policy issues. On the other hand, responsible advocates also need to recognize that story telling is a beginning of a dialogue around an issue which needs to evolve into a more nuanced, evidence informed discussion, rather than being a substitute for it.

If I want to introduce something and get people to care about it a story is a much better place to start than an academic paper – but it would also be remiss of researchers and advocates if they didn’t try take the conversation further, and it would be equally remiss of the listener not to dig into a story that touches them to question it and understand more about what’s behind it.

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Written by Ian Thorpe

February 29, 2012 at 8:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses

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  1. [...] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com – Today, 9:34 [...]

  2. [...] detractors and promoters are overstating their case (another example of black and white thinking?).Via kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com [...]

  3. Great post! Good analysis on the need of storytelling in development. You’ll see that I argue for it in my blog: http://bakingpowder4change.wordpress.com/ particularly for humanising development, organisational learning and establishing dialogue between diverse stakeholders. But I also agree with you in the importance of not creating black and white discussions, as if one tool could replace others.

    Why do we (humans) have this tendency to choose this or that, be for or against something, instead of merging and complementing ideas, tools and ways of doing things? Oh well, I hope your post can move some to think differently :)

    solemu

    February 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm

  4. [...] The rest is here: If I told you a story, would you believe me? [...]

  5. Stories are definitely subjective, and powerfully so. I’d argue, though, that facts from even the most stringent, well-designed monitoring systems can be “spun” to achieve a desired message and outcome. Scientific systems can also be manipulated. Essentially, as a humanitarian writer, I think the best use of stories is to bring social challenges to light in a deeply personal, engaging way. They’re about making that one-to-one connection, putting a human face on an issue that likely affects millions of people. The power of stories is to simplify and catch someone’s attention, getting them to look closer and – hopefully – take action.

    And that said, I think – as a sector – we must continue developing stories as an integral way of advocacy and communication. I believe that we can strengthen the practice to be more accurate while preserving the undeniable power that stories bring to the work we all do.

    Roger

    March 1, 2012 at 4:07 pm

  6. But what if you could convert stories to quantitative data? It’s being done already at GlobalGiving. As The Storytelling Project’s Director, Marc Maxson, explains: “The ‘experts’ rightly disparage qualitative methods because the samples are usually too small, and the conclusions we draw from them are subjective, interpretive, and non-reproducible. Our storytelling approach tries to solve this problem with massive, continuous story collection through thousands of people, and smart visual tools that help people see patterns and discuss their various interpretations.”
    See more at: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/08/29/storytelling-with-marc-maxson-part-1/

    How Matters

    March 2, 2012 at 7:02 am

    • Yes, I agree this has great potential. I get bothered when I hear quantitative researchers say that the plural of anecdote is not data, because done well it is. In my last job in UNICEF we were exploring the systematic collection of stories to help measure the value of communities of practice – see this blog http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/demonstrating-value-in-communities-of-practice/
      This was based on an approach developed by Etienne Wenger and Beverly Trayner. Unfortunately I left UNICEF before this could come to fruition and am unsure of where this project stands now.

      It is important however to draw a distinction between collecting testimonials from partners/beneficiaries using some kind of standardized approach, and attempting to keep in listening mode one the one hand, and setting out to deliberately craft a storyline (even if based on “the facts” as they were recounted) that seeks to carry a specific message in order to transfer a piece of knowledge or to persuade someone to engage or take action on the other. Both of these have their uses, but the first is most useful in terms of research and evidence gathering whereas the second is most useful in terms of engagement and persuasion. I think some of the problems with stories can be due to a misperception of, or poor trade-off between the two different approaches and objectives.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 2, 2012 at 9:14 am

      • Just to be clear about what I mean by “a lot”…
        GlobalGiving storytelling collected 40,000 stories in one year.
        Facebook collects 900 MILLION rather meaningless bits of data EACH DAY.

        The Framingham longitudinal health study — responsible for over 50 peer reviewed papers about QUANTITATIVE health outcomes — covers a pathetically paltry 6000 people X 40 years.

        Qualitative can EMERGE into quantitative data when two things happen – we are working tens of thousands of degrees of freedom and we QUANTITATIVELY detect and correct self-reporting bias in the data. I say “degrees of freedom” and not stories because I don’t assume every story represents a different person’s perspective and knowledge – a lot of stuff we “believe” is what others and the news tells us yet it remains beyond our lived experience.

        I think most “qualitative research” shows a single, positive viewpoint / perspective that too often is what the organization was hoping it would reveal. Forget quant-qual: That’s just not data, period.

        Where there is nothing unexpected, there is no information — as defined by Shannon’s information theory.

        This concludes my rant. Thanks.

        Marc Maxson

        March 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm

  7. [...] post by Knowledge Management on a dollar a day expands a debate between qualitative (stories) and quantitative (numbers) research – [...]

  8. [...] Ian Thorpe makes the case for taking a middle of the road approach: Reality is complex, messy and full of uncertainties – even in your own areas of expertise and experience. Explaining this to someone else who doesn’t share your technical background or frame of reference is extremely hard. Stories can serve as a powerful way to bridge these gaps to make it easier to convey an idea from one person to another. One of the reasons they work so well is that they distil messy reality into a few individual concepts or ideas stripping out detail and nuance, and they use a familiar narrative form to explain these in a way in which the listener can easily understand, relate to their own experience and emotionally engage with. [...]

  9. [...] Blattman and Ian Thorpe, prominent development bloggers, have written about the problems of simplistic narratives driving [...]

  10. [...] got lots of great comments on my recent blog post “If I told you a story, would you believe me?” In reading them I realize there are a couple of things I should have elaborated further on [...]

  11. [...] I couldn’t have found a better illustration of my last two blog posts on storytelling. KONY2012 nicely illustrates on the one hand how the most effective [...]

  12. [...] I couldn’t have found a better illustration of my last two blog posts on storytelling. KONY2012 nicely illustrates on the one hand how the most [...]

  13. [...] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com – Today, 7:11 [...]


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